By Lee Chottiner
Want a free Wheeling history lesson? Just look up.
That’s where you’ll find your textbooks: signs hand-painted high on the brick walls of buildings that once housed Wheeling’s leading businesses. You’ll find them downtown, in North and South Wheeling, Valley View—pretty much everywhere.
These advertising signs, also known as “ghost signs,” offer a unique take on the history of the Friendly City: what was made and sold here, who sold what and how.
The term “ghost signs” suits these solid advertisements. They were the forerunners of the neon sign, the billboard, radio and TV advertising and, of course, the Internet. These lead-based oil paint signs—done by painters, called “wall dogs,” who apparently had no fear of heights—have withstood the elements of time, proving that paint was once as powerful as pixels.
But now, many of the businesses these signs once trumpeted are shuttered. Nevertheless, they still convey fascinating messages about a bygone Wheeling to the history buff, the tourist and the gawker.
Like fingerprints, no two ghost signs are alike:
• The “Hotel McClure” on 14th Street, boasts of its“300 rooms;” “popular prices” and its “sprinkler system;”
• The Beckers Hardware sign on Market Street proudly advertises “feed and seeds;”
• The sign behind the old Stop and Shop on Washington Avenue, marred by two brick patches to its text, still claims that the defunct store sold “better foods for less;”
• And the Rogers Hotel on 14th Street is “fireproof” (thank goodness).
That kind of detail is a historian’s delight:
“Really, the outdoor advertising signs that can be found on the sides of many of our downtown buildings provide a historical record of sorts,” Rebekah Karelis, historian for the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation, said via email. “Though they are often abbreviated versions of commercials, they each have important information. Specific services are mentioned, dates of establishment, etc. Many different clues can be gleaned from these signs.”
The question is, what to do about them?
Like much of Wheeling’s architecture that has been torn down (or is in serious danger of it), many of these ghost signs—also known as brick ads or, more appropriately, fading ads—are in fair to poor condition. Many have faded so much that they are almost impossible to read; the paint is peeling on others. Still others have been painted over, though their outlines are still barely visible.
A unique part of Wheeling history is vanishing.
Karelis thinks they’re worth saving.
“There is no question they are significant from an historical perspective,” she said. “They are the product of our culture, demonstrating one of the early stages of advertising, and, well, they just look cool.
“Wheeling had a plethora of these signs once covering every spare inch of brick or wooden wall,” she continued. “Now faded or long gone, it is important that we try and preserve these signs in some way. Perhaps it is not always plausible to restore them and repaint them; the least we can do is photo document them while they are still visible.”
Aside from history, do these signs have artistic value?
Patricia Croft, director of the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley, a partner in Arts & Crofts with her husband, Andrew, and a well-known artist in Wheeling, thinks they do, though restoring them would be challenging.
“I believe they're a valuable part of history,” she said via email. However, “I cannot do anything about them without permission of each building's owner. I would love to receive commissions to rehab these, maybe that could be a city-led project?”
She’s not the only one who sees their artistry. British photographer Tom Bland, the son of graphic designers, has a special interest in ghost signs, and has shot quite a few of them. The BBC showcased his work in one of its stories.
Closer to home, Wheeling’s Mail Pouch Tobacco made its own contributions to ghost signs, painting its iconic slogan, “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco; Treat Yourself to the Best,” on thousands of barn walls in 22 states from 1925 through the 1960s. Many of those signs survive to this day.
Ghost signs depended less on photos and illustrations and more on colors and typography to showcase their creativity.
As Bland himself wrote, "I was seeing layers of typography, paint, color—and combined with the texture of the crumbling and flaking materials, many of them were appealing to me as looking like contemporary pieces of design in the vein of work by the Ray Gun magazine.”
So they’re historic and they have artistic value, but should they be preserved?
Well, check out this Coca-Cola wall advertisement on the side of a pharmacy in Cartersville, Ga., from 1894. The soft drink conglomerate has authenticated it as the first outdoor painted-wall advertisement for its flagship product. Fully restored, Cartersville now has a tourist attraction to promote.
There probably isn’t a ghost sign that famous in Wheeling, but just imagine the explosion of color and diversity around the city were the ghost signs extent ever to be restored. They could even be fodder for self-guided tours. And they would offer another reason to come downtown. (You want as many of those as possible.)
There’s an amazing online venture called the Ghost Sign Project. Started in Philadelphia by a Drexel University student who loves all forms of typography, he used the Internet to catalogue photos of that city’s wall advertising “before it was gone.” He even developed a map pinpointing their locations. Similar online projects have been done in other cities. As Karelis previously suggested, something like this could be done in Wheeling.
Sometimes, building owners themselves see the value of the ghost signs and preserve them. Glenn Elliott, owner of the Professional Building on Market Street, says restoring a badly faded ghost sign at the top of his building, is something he wants to do.
But there are structural issues to address.
“My long-term plans definitely include doing something with this sign,” Elliott said via text message. “My only concern is the integrity of the bricks. I have noticed that the condition of the mortar, where the sign was, is the worst anywhere on the building. And so I want to make sure that any new sign done with paint won’t impact the mortar.”
But if Wheeling wants to restore its wall ads, it had better hurry. Time is ravaging them, and the buildings on which they’re painted—the brick and mortar canvases—are themselves breaking down.